Do you have uncontrollable urges to eat foods with little nutritional value?
Why do people crave unhealthy foods, and how can you kick food cravings to the curb?
A craving isn’t hunger
It’s important to know the difference between a food craving and legitimate hunger. When hungry, your body releases the hormone ghrelin (known as “the hunger hormone”), which literally ‘compels’ you to eat to survive.
Cravings, on the other hand, are an intense desire for particular foods, which experts believe are connected to the brain neurotransmitter, dopamine, and a class of chemicals known as opioids. Dopamine is a hormone released when we see or experience something new and is linked to our reward centres in the brain.
Common cravings and their causes
Food cravings can either be physiological (physical) or psychological (mental).
A physiological craving can be a result of your body experiencing a suboptimal state. For example, an iron deficiency can lead to a craving for red meat, which is a good source of dietary iron, or a drop in blood sugar levels can lead to a sugar craving.
A desire for sugar is widely recognised by nutritional experts as the most common food craving. This is because it has the effect of driving up our blood sugar levels, which means increased energy and often heightened awareness, which we like to feel. Unfortunately, what goes up must come down and this happens very quickly post-sugar consumption, resulting in being tired and grumpy. The easiest way of dealing with these symptoms is then to reach for more sugar – it becomes a vicious cycle.
Unstable blood glucose levels and high insulin levels, which can lead to cravings, can also be a result of making incorrect food choices during the day.
Food and your mood
While the grip of physiological cravings can be intense, one cannot underestimate the intensity of psychological cravings either.
We have three kinds of hunger: physical, which requires food; emotional, which requires love; and intellectual, which requires knowledge, and sometimes we can get these three mixed up. If we are lacking love or attention, we can comfort-eat, and if we lack mental stimulation, we can eat out of boredom (sounds familiar?)
How cravings and hormones correlate
Researchers have found a connection between certain hormones and common food cravings. Insulin is a key hormone connected to cravings because it is released when our blood sugar levels rise too high and have the effect of driving sugars down. Thus, if insulin has been particularly active, you might be in a blood sugar dip and crave sugar.
Stress hormones, like cortisol, can stimulate blood sugar into yo-yoing, and being mentally and physically stressed can also result in bad eating behaviours. This is primarily due to the body’s production of cortisol in response to stress because its primary functions are to increase blood sugar through the metabolism of protein, fat and carbohydrates for use as energy by the body’s cells, and to suppress the immune system. In addition, it blocks the release of leptin and insulin, thus increasing hunger and cravings for high-energy foods, such as cakes and sweets.
How can you prevent those rampant food cravings?
- Stabilise your blood sugar levels by ensuring you eat a good balance of carbohydrates, healthy fats and proteins with each meal and snack.
- Eat before you become too hungry to prevent over-eating and making bad food choices on the limb.
- Eat quality foods with high nutritional value to prevent cravings stemming from nutritional needs.
- Follow a good meal structure throughout the day so that you don’t go hungry for too long, which may lead to giving in to cravings.
- Allow yourself a little of the foods you love, but control your portions.
- Keep your home and work area clear of any unhealthy foods and snacks to prevent giving in to cravings.
- Substitute unhealthy cravings with nutritionally sound options for example, instead of eating ice cream or cookies, opt for a few slices of apple with some peanut butter (or these delicious, high-protein brownie bites). Instead of reaching for crisps, eat magnesium-rich foods like nuts, seeds or a little bit of dark chocolate instead.
- Drink a glass of water – sometimes cravings can be a symptom of dehydration.
Ultimately we need to accept that cravings are a part of life, but effectively managing your cravings will give you an edge in your quest to attain optimal health and fitness. Utilising these tips the next time a craving takes hold will not only assist you in taking back control but will also allow you to feel and look your best in the long run.
Do you have any tips on how to control or managing your cravings?
Please share them with us!
Author: Tanja Schmitz
Founder and Editor of Fitness Magazine. You’ll find her behind her computer or on her bike, dreaming up new ways to improve or create content for you.